For Dr. Brooks Keel, one of the key factors that drew his interest to become president of Georgia Southern University was what he calls the college’s “culture of being student centered.” So, in his first week on the job as the college’s new leader, Keel wants to have lunch with the student body. Just not all at the same time.
“I’d like to establish once a month where I could meet informally with students in the Union,” Keel said. “Perhaps over lunch where students could just talk about what’s on their mind. Certainly, I couldn’t do it with all 19,000 at once. But a few at a time.”
Keel was named Georgia Southern’s 12th president in October, after a 10-month search and nearly a year after Dr. Bruce Grube announced he would retire after 10 years as president. A Georgia native, Keel received his bachelor’s degree from Augusta State University and his Ph.D. from the Medical College of Georgia. He was vice chancellor for research and development and a professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University immediately prior to coming to Statesboro. He also held positions previously at the University of Kansas and Florida State University.
Keel is clearly excited about the future of Georgia Southern.
“A lot of schools talk about getting to the next level, but Georgia Southern has migrated to the point where it is truly ready to make the leap,” he said. “We are here at a very special point in time where the faculty, students and staff are all ready. By focusing on research and scholarship, we are poised to take it to the next level in terms of ranking, reputation and ability to generate revenue.”
Keel also recognizes the realities of a still tough economic climate as he begins his tenure.
“You can’t propose all sorts of things if you don’t have the money to pay for it,” he said. “We are facing some of the most difficult budget times in history. The (Georgia Southern) faculty and staff have had to work harder to train more students with less money and there’s going to be a point where we can’t do any more without more resources.
“The good news is that enrollment has increased and with that comes increased revenue. We are in as good a shape financially as a university can be considering the economic times we’re in.”
One way Keel believes he may help GSU offer more is to look for possible partnerships with other state colleges and universities.
“We can’t be all things as a university to all people,” he said. “What we can do is find out what our unique strengths are with regard to the expertise we have on campus and with regard to the needs of this part of the state and region. But we don’t have to do this in isolation. We have other colleges we could partner with. Being a Medical College of Georgia alumnus myself, I’ll talk with the MCCG president about a collaboration to increase opportunities for our students in public health, nursing and perhaps medicine.”
Keel’s wife Tammie Schalue brings her own set of impressive academic credentials to Georgia Southern. She is director of laboratories for the Heartland Center for Reproductive Medicine in Omaha, Neb., and an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.
Working at universities with sports traditions such as LSU and Florida State, Keel understands the importance of athletics to the student body and even as a way for a school to advertise itself.
“Athletics is like the front porch of the university,” Keel said. “It gets people who don’t know much about our university and lets them look inside the university and see the good things we are doing at Georgia Southern. They might start taking a look at us. Athletics also provide a mechanism and conduit for the community and alumni to contribute back to the university.”
With enrollment predicted to reach 25,000 students by 2020, Keel said he wants to keep the student-centered focus of the university.
“Clearly, as you expand the number of students there are a number of things you’ve got to be concerned about,” Keel said. “You could very quickly lose that touch between the professors and students if the number of faculty doesn’t also increase. We have to pay attention to infrastructure with enough classrooms to keep classes small. We would need to increase the number of residence halls and beds on campus, which is something the university has done very well.”
Keel was quick to laugh when asked to consider what he would like his legacy to be after only three days on the job. But he clearly has high expectations for himself and for Georgia Southern.
“Three days, OK,” he said. “From a 10,000-foot view what I would like to see a legacy or an accomplishment is for Georgia Southern to be considered a national comprehensive university instead of a regional comprehensive university. I really think Georgia Southern is at a point where it could do that. It’s at a point where it can move in that direction.
“It’s going to be more than just providing an educational opportunity for the sons and daughters of Georgia. It’s going to provide an educational opportunity for the sons and daughters of this entire country. It’s going to have a reputation that goes well beyond the boundaries of Georgia. It already has and we’ll continue to build on that. It will have a reputation in the areas of research and creative works that go well beyond this state. That’s the legacy I’d like to leave.”